In the recent ‘celebrations’ of the 50-year anniversary of (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual activity, one of the central themes which emerged was the importance of pop culture to LGBT* life. It has provided much-needed recognition and an outlet for expression while helping transform the world. In so doing, and in ways too numerous, too tiny, too enormous to express, it has transformed us. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how large a role Madonna has played in my life. She was there when I started to question the Catholicism I’d been raised with; she was there when I started to realise I was ‘different’; she was there when I started having sex and battled both the religious and societal conditioning that doing it with men, and with many men at that, was wrong. She provided my own ‘Ziggy on TOTP’ moment, the men passionately kissing during In Bed With Madonna, the first time I can remember seeing not just gay men, but gay men expressing their sexuality. At every step she was there, both as an enormous, alien, mighty figure looming large over (seemingly) the entire world and as a small voice whispering to me, “you are ok, you are going to be ok and you are allowed to be ok.’ And she did it, and continues to do it, with a gold-plated soundtrack which remains an unparalleled testament to the power of pop; one which can still fill a club in Hackney with people dancing joyously; one which still thrills me and shakes me to my core. I love Madonna, and I always will love Madonna, with a sincerity and earnestness which you’re not really supposed to express in 2017. Happy birthday and thank you @Madonna
You can’t argue with that.
Full text here, shared here in solidarity.
“We stand in solidarity with NUS LGBT+ Officer Fran Cowling and support their right to choose who they share a platform with according to their own values and beliefs. We believe fundamentally in the right to freedom of speech and association but that both of these carry with them the right to choose to neither speak nor associate with someone and Fran has every right to exercise those rights however they deem fit.
We are appalled at Peter Tatchell’s actions in dragging a dedicated, hard-working and passionate activist through an appalling media circus which has led to them receiving a torrent of vile abuse with no other apparent purpose than to salve his own ego.”
No-one would have predicted that a Will Young video would inspire comment pieces at all, let alone in 2015. Yet Brave Man inspired two Guardian pieces in one day due to its depiction of a trans man, played by a trans male actor. As these pieces note, reaction to the video was mixed and it led to a (small) reignition of debate around the concept of ‘allies’ (the subject of Owen Jones’ column.) As a result, Paris Lees took to Twitter to praise some ‘trans allies’:
This list was illuminating for all of the wrong reasons. Aside from overwhelmingly being made up of celebrities and ‘the commentariat’ (which I’ll come back to later), it implicitly suggested a particular definition of ‘trans’. It did not, for example, suggest that any trans people could be harmed by Islamophobia (see Cathy Newman’s lying about being ‘ushered out’ of a mosque), racism (Grace Dent’s appalling take on teenagers who join ISIS, suitably deconstructed here) or the use of AIDS and ‘tranny’ as casual punchlines. The inclusion of the managing editor of The Sun, renowned for its bigotry and extreme right-wing views, was particularly breathtaking but perhaps unsurprising as Lees writes for it. What the list seemed to represent, then, was less ‘allies of all trans people’ than ‘allies of trans people like Paris Lees and Paris Lees’. Indeed, Owen Jones was included in the list and returned the favour by liberally quoting Lees in his column defending allies:
Paris Lees is passionate about winning trans allies through the impressive awareness raising project All About Trans, and is irritated when there’s “a big backlash against anyone who tries to be an ally”. They should be given space to grow and educate themselves, she believes. But she puts the anger of many trans activists in an important context: “I don’t know of any trans people not deeply damaged by discrimination, and so there’s lots of angry people out there.” An ally will get it wrong and upset those they want to support. But the reaction surely is to listen and understand an anger that erupts from a toxic mixture of prejudice and marginalisation.
Jones is savvy enough to anticipate the pitfalls of defending the concept of ‘allyship’ in his opening paragraph, suggesting you may get accused of ‘drowning out’ minority voices or ‘making it about you’. Yet of course this is what the column does, with its lengthiest paragraph being about Jones’ previous experience of writing about trans rights. Someone who identifies as an ‘ally’ to trans people writing in defence of ‘trans allies’ can’t help but seem somewhat self-indulgent, especially when you’ve been criticised for e.g. sitting on a panel called ‘How To Be Happy And Transgender‘. Even Jack Monroe’s column is angled as a defence of the video from those criticising it.
Yet if someone trying to be an ally should, as Paris Lees suggests, ‘be given space to grow and educate themselves’, why approach criticism largely originating from other trans people as unwarranted and unhelpful? The framing of ‘ally’ here is quite a typical one: it suggests that people deserve props for ‘trying’ and for ‘speaking out’. This implies that there is some place we arrive at where we are ‘enlightened’, whether that be with regards to gender, sexuality, race, disability or whatever. There is no such place. Whomever we are, we are always engaged in an everyday battle to overcome the mental barriers of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We cannot escape this and, as hooks’ term underlines, we particular cannot escape the myriad of ways in which these oppressions interact and intersect
The concept of ‘allies’ largely negates this idea of constant struggle, replacing it with the risible notion that you deserve praise for ‘trying’ not to be racist or transphobic or sexist or homophobic. For me it lessens the complex humanity of those at the sharp end of these kinds of oppression and positions them as abstract groupings. They are presented as learning tools, as chances to show how ‘good’ you are (note Lees’ ‘who’ve gone out of their way to be friends to trans people’ as if it’s a project) and at its most cynical, as marketing opportunities. It’s notable that, in the LGBT world at least, the term is most commonly applied to the kind of people Paris Lees listed: celebrities and those in positions of some power. Take this recent Gay Times tweet:
“A straight ally in every sense.” What does this even mean? It seems to boil down to ‘he says he thinks homophobia is bad, loves his gay fans and poses in his pants with a rainbow painted on his torso’. It’s absolutely nothing to do with oppression and everything to do with boosting his profile. In the process of celebrating this drivel, we are complicit in being patronised and erasing the many differences within our communities. Attitude gives an award called ‘Honorary Gay’ to straight people (who, if recent recipient Lorraine Kelly is anything to go by, merely say nice things about gays) while many lap up the self-serving ‘charity’ of Ben ‘gays love grooming’ Cohen or the Warwick Rowers with their UKIP supporting ‘leader’. It’s a neat bait and switch: having benefited (in varying degrees) from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, ‘allies’ then elevate themselves again by feigning to oppose aspects of it in the most weak manner imaginable. Yet we see ‘allyship’ actually serving to reinforce aspects of this by policing the kind of ‘minority’ we’re supposed to (aspire to) be – e.g. as a gay man ‘allyship’ tells me that I am supposed to fit into white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as far as possible rather than challenge it. “Look, this rich and successful white man thinks gays should be able to get married – and you complain?!”
Indeed, as we see in the columns about Brave Man, anyone who responds to ‘allyship’ with strong criticism quickly finds the limits of how much their voice is truly valued. They will inevitably be accused of being ‘cynical’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘angry’. The responses to Bahar Mustafa and the consent lessons at Warwick are prominent examples of people feeling attacked by having forms of oppression raised because they think they’re on the right side already. Celebrating ‘allyship’ does not lend itself to self-reflection or accepting criticism but instead places individual ego at the centre of social justice. When I wrote about the absurdity of Ben Cohen appearing on Newsnight to discuss homophobia, I was attacked by Antony Cotton (no less) who seemed to think I should be grateful for Cohen’s ‘activism’. Any criticism is accepted entirely on the terms of the ‘ally’ and supporters.
The question at the heart of all this, then, is inevitably ‘ally to whom?’ To return to Paris Lees’ tweets as an example, many trans people are clearly excluded by those she deems as ‘allies’ (particularly trans poc). When Jones writes that “trans people are basically where gay people were in the 1980s” it doesn’t seem to occur to him that many queer people are still there in many ways. The recent OUTstanding list of business ‘allies’, meanwhile, includes such luminaries as the union-busting, tax-avoiding Richard Branson and a veritable horde of execs at morally dubious firms. These people are certainly not my allies by any stretch of the imagination yet, in ally discourse, I am supposed to celebrate them because they have LGBT networks, have diversity targets or enable people to put rainbows on their Facebook celebrating ‘equal marriage’ (which was only ‘equal’ for some).
Only a robust, intersectional approach which recognises our full humanity can counter this. Of course representation matters but to suggest, as Owen Jones does, that ‘solidarity’ = ‘building coalitions’ = “allies” is wrong. We have to reject the idea that ‘trying’ is worth either our gratitude or our celebration. We try because we are human and because we care about other humans, not because it’s an ostentatiously ‘good’ thing to do. We should always be able to criticise and always open to criticism. We should not be complicit in our own reduction: do not celebrate being patronised by celebrities, do not rejoice when media companies worth hundreds of millions ‘amplify our voices’ without paying us, do not award executives who make positive noises on equality while enabling industrial scale tax avoidance and helping arm dictators. The kind of ‘allyship’ which has entered the mainstream bears little relation to anything of true value. Rather it brings a host of problems and few benefits. I am not an ally.
This is Ruth Hunt, Chief Executive of Stonewall, commenting on the UKIP at Pride debacle which has unfolded over the past few days. You will search in vain for an actual position on this from the UK’s foremost LGBT charity, though it’s not difficult to gauge what Hunt’s own position is:
With a few exceptions (Peter Tatchell supports UKIP’s removal; the editor of Pink News opposes it and dug up Brian Paddick to support this view) you will similarly struggle to find many of the LGBT community’s prominent organisations, media outlets and figures taking a position on this. There seems to be a widespread terror of being seen to be ‘political’ and offending anyone, as if ‘politics’ is some strange thing which exists over there and isn’t inherent in absolutely everything we say and do. Hunt’s tweets at the top have been typical of this approach, which presents the matter as merely a ‘disagreement’ within the LGBT community rather than a case of political choices being made over which voices and whose interests to prioritise.
It was a grim irony that the UKIP story broke only days after I wrote about Barclays again sponsoring Pride and the ubiquity of ‘pinkwashing’. There I wrote:
Truly we are a long way from the days when social justice and ‘queer rights’ were viewed as inextricably linked but there’s still a huge continuum between that and our current gloopy, undiscriminating praise at any notion of support for ‘LGBT equality’. We aren’t a separate class of people – we are as likely to be affected by Barclays screwing everyone over as the next person. We can do better than this.
This could easily be applied to the UKIP situation, where many seem to believe that LGBT people supporting the party means that it is changing, more welcoming and thus should be allowed to march at Pride. The Chair of the UKIP LGBT* group was given a platform on Pink News to argue that case. Another Pink News column argues “we must remember that one of the core principles of Pride is that of inclusion of all LGBT people”. Twitter has been awash with (overwhelmingly white male) assertions that Pride is about ‘inclusion’ and ‘tolerance’ and so ‘different opinions’ should be welcomed. It’s notable that even Pride in London’s statement retracting UKIP’s invitation to march went to pains to endorse this line of thinking, stating that “we aim to unite our community, not divide it” and making the bizarre claim that the decision “has not been made on a political basis”.
This line of thinking presents those opposing UKIP as intolerant and divisive – a perverse framing of anti-racism which was seized on by the UKIP LGBT* Chair, who presented its members as a ‘brave’ victimised minority:
Oh the humanity! Won’t somebody think of the ‘kippers?! While many advancing this reasoning are at pains to stress that they don’t support UKIP, they commonly hold the view that UKIP are a legitimate political party, that its views are held by many people and that it deserves to be at Pride if LGBT people support it (this is usually alongside the deeply weird claim that UKIP’s LGBT* group, comprised of UKIP members and candidates and proposing to march under the UKIP name, aren’t actually UKIP).
I’m sure some brains will seize up here but this argument smacks of the (overwhelmingly white male) privilege which has dominated the LGBT movement for so long. These people think they are being coldly rational, defending a ‘right’ rather than any particular viewpoint. Yet in doing so they are choosing whose voices and interests matter to them. They are choosing to ignore the many people of colour, immigrants, HIV+ people, anti-racists and more who have spoken of their disgust, dismay and even fear at UKIP’s proposed presence on the march. “Your concerns don’t matter, we must be inclusive!” is the utterly self-defeating cry.
Yet invariably the people taking this line have been outspoken in their support for the banning of anti-gay bus adverts. They have been outraged by the refusal of a Christian baker to make a wedding gay for a gay couple. They have applauded the legal win against guesthouse owners who turned away a gay couple. They aren’t riding to battle for the ‘rights’ of the EDL and BNP to march in Pride, despite them being banned:
Let’s remember that the Pride march is not an open, public event for organisations – you have to apply, pay a fee and Pride in London reserve the right to refuse you. It is clear, then, that the issue is less that all these people defending UKIP’s ‘rights’ are hardcore free speech absolutists but that they are comfortable with the kind of speech UKIP represents.
It is no coincidence that, by and large, it is a rhetoric which poses no threat to a white, HIV-negative gay man, despite UKIP’s repeated and continued homophobia. By dropping its opposition to same-sex marriage, UKIP were tacitly embracing the totemic human-rights issue for many in the LGBT community and thus removing the major road block to LGBT support. They’re fine with gay people getting married: the end. Any consideration of how LGBT identity interacts with immigration, with HIV, with racism, with misogyny falls by the wayside: in dropping opposition to marriage, UKIP ceases to be a problematic ‘political’ case for many and just becomes another group which deserves to be heard, even if you personally don’t support it.
This is a political choice which clearly elevates some interests above others. It’s also a prime example of ‘white fragility’ where racism is viewed as an individual moral issue rather than a systemic ideology:
This is evident in many discussions of UKIP, where you will inevitably hear claims that ‘it’s not racist to oppose immigration’ and ‘you can’t label millions of people as racist’. ‘Racism’ is this terrible thing which you must never accuse someone of, an attitude which is endemic in the UK and beyond. To do so is to be divisive and worse, to be angry. You are ruining it for all of the lovely, rational, nice people!
Here’s the rub: UKIP is racist. It’s not racist in the sense that it has a few ‘bad apples’ or a few wacky policies, it is a fundamentally racist organisation. The founder of the party abandoned it stating (tw: racist language):
…the party ‘are racist and have been infected by the far right’, and that its leader Nigel Farage told him ‘we will never win the nigger vote. The nig-nogs will never vote for us.’
Its policies and support-base have had significant overlap with the far-right; it has been backed by the BNP, Britain First and EDL, with Tommy Robinson stating “they are saying exactly what we say in a different way”; its has countless links with the far-right and Farage has been photographed with prominent members of the National Front/BNP who viewed UKIP as allies; they have sat with fascists in the European Parliament and fought to retain funding for parties like the BNP; its tactics and appeal are a direct continuation of the far-right in the UK; it is opposed by every anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation you could mention.
The far-right thrive on attempting to divide communities and pose as the ‘common sense’ voice – this is why communities turn out in the streets to show united opposition to far-right marches. It’s also why unity of opposition to UKIP at Pride should have been a no-brainer: not only because we stand with the non-white, non-British members of the LGBT community but because we oppose all bigotry and all opportunistic attempts to use our community. Yet rather than engaging with critical, informed voices (I asked Pride in London if they’d spoken to a single anti-racist group about inviting UKIP and received no reply) we have people attempting to assert their dominance once again, telling themselves that they are being ‘liberal’ and ‘rational’ with (ironically) zero thought as to the choices and power imbalances which have brought them to this position.
It’s utterly shameful.
It’s interesting that there has been another, smaller storm around Pride this week as its plans to have Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners lead the parade fell apart when LGSM were informed they couldn’t march with their trade union comrades. This led me to discover that the TUC had suggested ‘Solidarity’ as the parade theme this year but the Pride Community Advisory Board chose ‘Heroes’ because:
…Pride is different things to different people and that the parade theme of ‘Heroes’ would provide a broad range of interpretations to allow all groups and people to find a way to engage with it. On a vote Solidarity received 1 vote and Heroes 7 votes with 1 abstention.
The irony here really is too much: solidarity rejected because it would involve actually leading and shaping what Pride is, rather than allowing every individual, including the racists, to ‘interpret’ however they want. With such cowardice it’s easy to understand how we got to the UKIP scandal. There is a glimmer of hope, however: the debacle has led to critical scrutiny of Pride which has only existed on the margins in recent years, with a burgeoning movement to ‘Reclaim Pride’. Even those defending UKIP have taken to highlighting the problem with a group like Barclays marching, or the racist immigration policies of the other parties (they do so thinking it’s a ‘gotcha’ moment rather than…a good point).
Pride is still held on the Saturday nearest to the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Despite historically illiterate attempts to portray these riots as being about ‘demanding a voice for everyone’, they were a revolt by people of colour, trans people, queers and the working-class against a racist, homophobic power structure. Radical, liberatory politics of social justice were absolutely central to the movement, which did not exist in a vacuum removed from Black Power or radical feminism. Inspirations like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera did not fight so that racists could march with Pride – they stood firmly with the marginalised against the oppressors. This is what changes society, not racist LGBT people marching for racist organisations. We honour them by continuing that fight and opposing UKIP with every fibre of our beings.
Last month Barclays was handed the ‘largest ever’ bank fine in UK history over its role in rigging foreign exchange (forex) markets and ripping-off customers. This is, of course, only the latest scandal to be exposed at Barclays and comes after its fines for attempting to rig Libor rates and attempting to rig the gold market. Nothing sums up the rotten culture at the core of Barclays (a culture which, it must be said, is clearly not isolated to a single bank) than the forex chat logs which revealed one trader stating “if you aint cheating, you aint trying”. Charming stuff.
Given these continuing scandals and Barclays’ involvement in the arms trade, food price speculation, money laundering and propping up dictatorships (to name a few things we know about), it was somewhat amusing to see their involvement in a project aiming to provide retraining to sex workers. It seems to me that providing retraining opportunities to employees of the socially destructive Barclays would have a far more positive impact on the world. Finance workers deserve basic human dignity too!
Still, no matter what Barclays does it can be sure of some good press this month as it again sponsors London Pride. This is, apparently:
…just one of the ways in which we show our commitment to the LGBT community. At Barclays we want our colleagues, customers and clients to feel free to express who they are at all times.
Far be it from me to suggest that profiting from lying, defrauding, stealing, exploiting, firing, starving, suppressing and killing people isn’t much of a ‘commitment’ to humanity at all. That would of course be churlish when Barclays will undoubtedly once again roll out their ‘gay cash machines’ and have their LGBT network tweet a lot of Hallmark sentiments. Inspirational stuff.
In the few years since Sarah Schulman applied the term to Israel , the practice of ‘pinkwashing‘ has ramped up to become a ubiquitous element in the marketing of corporations and countries. As we see with Barclays, being seen to be ‘LGBT-friendly’ attracts a progressive sheen which is viewed as separate from the social activities your corporation or government may engage in; indeed, it can serve to largely obscure these for certain audiences. Witness how Russia has become the bogeyman of Eurovision for its government’s totemic attacks on LGBT rights, while countries with terrible human rights records such as Azerbaijan or Israel pass largely without comment (and in fact the Swedish winner made some absurd homophobic statements only last year – consider whether forgiveness would have been so swift had he not been an attractive white man from a ‘civilised‘ country).
It was not surprising in the least, then, to see that a group of businesses in Australia placed an advert in support of ‘marriage equality’ in the wake of the Irish referendum result. It’s worth quoting at length:
Australian Marriage Equality national director Rodney Croome said the corporations approached the organisation send the message that Australia’s business community was behind marriage equality.
“It was about corporate saying it’s not just about us individually supporting this, we want to do it collectively and send the strongest possible message,” Mr Croome said.
He said corporations understood the importance of respect for diversity in the workplace and equality for staff and customers.
“They’re also very sensitive of course to Australia’s international reputation … that is at risk of suffering if we don’t catch up to countries that are most like us — New Zealand, the UK, the US, Canada and now, Ireland,” he said.
The businesses initiated the ad because they believe in ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ and are worried about lagging behind ‘countries that are most like us’. Mr Croome can be assured that his words won’t be parsed closely but they are quite illuminating if we consider them. I’ve written previously about how the ‘equality’ promoted by many ‘equal marriage’ proponents is only equality for some, a fact Emma Goldman could grasp back in 1911 (and that’s without even getting into the spousal veto). This is not in itself a reason to oppose the extension of marriage rights, of course, but it is an indication that we should be wary of uncritically accepting much of the rhetoric around a cause which is easily framed as a conservative one. These companies know that their ‘support’ will ensure that they are viewed as ‘progressive’.
There is a more insidious aspect of Mr Croome’s rhetoric – the notion that gay marriage in itself is a marker of countries ‘like us’, listing off a series of ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ countries. He even includes the US despite it not having nationwide same-sex marriage. It was, I’m sure, a statement with little thought or intent behind it but given the use of LGBT rights as a marker of ‘civilisation’, it offers us a glimpse of a weaponised ‘equal marriage’ movement. The implications of this are clear when we consider its application to e.g. the Commonwealth (it’s not often noted that South Africa legalised same-sex marriage in 2006) but it also serves to obscure other human rights struggles within the countries presented as ‘civilised’. The academic Alana Lentin has, for example, noted how Labor in Australia have introduced an ‘equal marriage’ bill just as they support proposals to make it possible to strip Australians of their citizenship – proposals which are clearly aimed at Muslims. In the UK, Stonewall chose to tweet about the Tory-led coalition’s ‘impressive record’ the day after the Tories won the election on a platform of massive welfare cuts, repealing the Human Rights Act, implementing the ‘Snooper’s Charter’ and further demonising immigrants:
After the referendum in Ireland, meanwhile, we have seen a flurry of commentary on how the country has ‘joined the 21st century’ and was a ‘changed country’. While it’s undoubtedly significant that a country so dominated by the Catholic Church for so long made such a decision, it’s notable that much of the ‘movement’ behind marriage has quickly moved onto securing it in Northern Ireland while the fact that, for example. Ireland retains some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world was largely an afterthought. Feminist Katha Pollitt noted a similar situation in the USA, observing that ‘equal marriage’ “won’t fundamentally alter our social and economic arrangements” while full reproductive rights would be transformative.
Yet such commentary not only remains marginal, it seems to be becoming increasingly marginalised as pinkwashing spreads. Even from the sidelines it was clear that much of the troubling rhetoric the UK saw deployed in favour of ‘equal marriage’, such as bashing single-parent families or polyamorous relationships, was ramped up to 10 in the Irish referendum; the response to companies which make nods towards LGBT ‘support’, meanwhile, is almost entirely uncritical. Truly we are a long way from the days when social justice and ‘queer rights’ were viewed as inextricably linked but there’s still a huge continuum between that and our current gloopy, undiscriminating praise at any notion of support for ‘LGBT equality’. We aren’t a separate class of people – we are as likely to be affected by Barclays screwing everyone over as the next person. We can do better than this.
Madonna is a 56 year old woman. It’s important to mention this fact at the beginning because it’s the dominant prism through which her career (and indeed her life) is viewed these days. After the already infamous wardrobe malfunction at the BRIT Awards, social media was awash with terrible jokes and easy slights all premised on her being a frail elderly woman while her refusal to ‘cover up’ inevitably leads to demands that she ‘puts it away’. She is called a ‘cougar’ (a woman I was discussing Madonna with the other day disparagingly called her ‘cougaresque’ before stating with no hint of irony that she was ‘opposed’ to the ageism she faces) and mocked for her efforts to appear ‘young’ while photos where she ‘looks her age’ regularly form sneering tabloid stories. She is labelled ‘vampiric’ for daring to work with younger, on-trend producers and even ostensibly positive articles about her invariably buy into the notion that she is desperately clinging onto youth and/or relevance.
‘Desperate’ is not an adjective you will often hear thrown at legendary male musicians. When Prince, also 56, returned last year with a band made up of younger women and singing songs you could easily imagine someone half his age performing, he was met with unbridled praise. Yet the sexism behind this double standard operates in ways more subtle than the ‘mere’ fact that men face far fewer constraints on who they are expected to be as they age. If we look at Kate Bush, for example, we see a 56 year old female who is massively respected and praised; if we look at Joni Mitchell or Stevie Nicks, we see artists 10 years older who are similarly admired. The opprobrium Madonna faces, then, is not solely because she is an ageing woman but rather because she is an ageing woman making contemporary pop/dance music.
1983, when Madonna released her debut album, was “an era where disco was anathema to the mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again”. Madonna’s roots lay in a music scene which belonged to the queers, the blacks, the latinos, the drag queens and yes, the women. The infamous ‘Disco Sucks!’ movement typifies the sexist, racist and homophobic opposition which this music met with and it was in this context Madonna released a debut where she solely wrote 5 of the 8 tracks. As Michael Rosenblatt (A&R of Sire Records at the time) puts it, even Warner Bros dismissed her as “just a little dance girl.”
It seems fair to say that Madonna has faced variations on this attitude in her career since, whether it be accusations that she slept her way to success, assertions that her ‘real talent’ is marketing and self-promotion or the attribution of her successes to the men she has collaborated with. It’s not an accident that her most respected albums, Like A Prayer and Ray of Light, are the ones where she most ostentatiously seemed like a musical auteur while, for example, the high concept brilliance of Erotica or the cleverness of MDNA as her second divorce album were generally lost in the midst of dance beats, Sex books and Super Bowls. Over the years ‘rockism’ has, of course, been chipped away and Madonna has won a begrudging respect from many. In the past decade or so, however, she’s faced another set of prejudices under the guise of ‘poptimism’, an approach which sees the rejection of ‘authenticity’ and the ‘rock canon’ as its liberating raison d’être. This is fine up to a point but (as I’ve written about many times before) it has led to orthodoxies as facile and constraining as rockism at its worst: a fetishising of and supplication to youth; a hyper-sensitive rejection of sincerity and earnestness; a deep suspicion of ‘traditional’ markers of musical talent (ie the endless whining over guitars) and an irreverence which frequently tips over into petulance. It’s this approach which led us to the absurdity of a pop album where the ‘artist’ doesn’t necessarily even sing entire verses attributed to her: poptimism has, ironically, a contempt for pop music at its core.
Madonna, on the other hand, has always taken pop music seriously and approached it sincerely. How could she not? Disco and its aftermath wasn’t about empty, half-understood post-modernist; rather it was about life. A celebration, yes, but at its most basic level it was about the survival and defiance of those the mainstream rejected. Madonna came to music knowing that it mattered and knowing that her self-expression as a pop artist was one of the most powerful statements she could ever make. Her famous statement that she wanted ‘to rule the world’ was not (just) hubris but a statement of intent that she could make things better – not for nothing does her debut single command ‘Everybody’ to “dance and sing, get up and do your thing”.
In 2015, then, we have rockist relics forever suspicious of Madonna making pop music and poptimists who can’t understand why she should warrant any respect or even attention unless she’s delivering instant gratification. She’s at least double the age of your average pop singer on the charts yet hasn’t ‘toned it down’ and gone the route expected of her (witness the contrasting responses to Annie Lennox’s ‘graceful’ ageing at the Grammys vs Madonna’s ass-baring.) She is quite unique in being a middle-aged female pop artist who refuses to go quietly into the night or become her own tribute act, a move which I’m certain would quickly gratify her to many detractors who want little more than nostalgia from their ageing musicians.
This latter approach was exactly the one taken David Bowie in 2002 with Heathen (when he was 55), and by Bob Dylan in 1997 with Time Out of Mind (when he was 57). Both, of course, tick a lot more of the boxes warranting ‘respect’ than Madonna but by recording albums which harked back to their heydays, firmly met expectations of what they should be doing and nodded towards the fact of their ageing, they were greeted by an avalanche of acclaim. Madonna’s not an idiot. Coming from the commercial disappointment of MDNA (though two million sales these days is nothing to be sniffed at) and facing an uphill battle to ever have a hit single again, she surely knows that if she were to reunite with, say, Pat Leonard, dye her hair black, put on some conservative clothes and sing some ballads about how awful it was getting old before knocking around singing Like A Prayer, she’d have a much easier time of it. Yet Rebel Heart is, in its way, as much a restatement of values as Time Out of Mind or Heather were. It is also just as much about ageing.
Ever since Madonna stridently sang “Unlike the others I’d do anything, I’m not the same, I have no shame” on Burning Up, she’s done a good line in ‘nothing’s gonna stop me!” songs. Yet given Madonna’s current position there’s something poignant in hearing her sing ‘Now that it’s over/I’m gonna carry on’ over a throwback 90s house track in Rebel Heart’s opener Living For Love. The proposed concept of Rebel Heart, abandoned after leakageddon, was apparently a double-album comprised of two ‘sides’: rebel and heart. This isn’t particularly different from the stated theme of Hard Candy, which was to juxtapose Madonna’s toughness with her ‘soft centre’ and, like HC, Rebel Heart is an album which looks backwards a lot. Yet while Hard Candy sonically revisited the r&b-inflected pop of Madonna’s early years (her debut was allegedly the template), Rebel Heart is possibly the most musically diverse album she’s ever released. It’s also one very much about taking stock and moving onwards into an uncertain future.
The album is littered with obvious references to Madonna’s past – the Vogue sample on Holy Water, the Justify My Love lyrics on Best Night, the cavalcade of song titles which make up Veni Vidi Vici; the title track’s moving reflection on her life; it’s also packed with allusions to Madonna’s status as an ageing pop icon. On electro-folk tour de force Devil Prey she sings “Holding on, but I’m getting weaker/watch me disappear.” Ghosttown, a Ryan Tedder-esque anthem which is probably the album’s best chance of a hit, depicts a barren post-apocalyptic world and finds Madonna musing that “Everything’s bound to break sooner or later.” In the gorgeous Joan of Arc she sings “Even when the world turns its back on me/There could be a war, but I’m not going down.” Album closer (standard version) Wash All Over Me is an elegiac ballad which seems self-explanatory given what I’ve written above:
In a world that’s changing
I’m a stranger in a strange land
There’s a contradiction
And I’m stuck here in between
Life is like a desert
An oasis to confuse me
So I walk this razor’s edge
Will I stand or will I fall?
…If this is the end then let it come
Let it come
Let it rain
…Gonna watch the sun going down
I’m not gonna run from all this sadness
I remember reading a review of Bedtime Stories in Q Magazine which ended by posing the question “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?” Now, over 20 years later, Madonna seems to be posing the question to herself. The most fascinating song in this regard is, ironically, one which seems to have been removed from the track listing at the last minute: Queen is an astounding dirge quite unlike anything she’s ever recorded before and finds the Queen of Pop addressing indirectly addressing her listeners:
We’re at the end of days
For heaven’s sake
The queen’s been slain
She’ll never rule again
…Black parade, motorcade
Destiny sings farewell, church bells
Is anyone listening?
…Who will take her place?
Its written on everyone’s face
The truth is slowly dawning
I hear tomorrow calling
Some things can’t be replaced
The realization of a new generation
On the eve of imitation
All gone, overthrown
She is, in effect, saying ‘you fuckers will miss me when I’m gone’. In fact, ‘some things can’t be replaced’ could fairly be described as the over-arching theme of the album or, to put it another way – Bitch I’m Madonna. The ‘rebel’ songs are less concerned with considering Madonna’s demise (metaphorical or otherwise) than with reminding us that she can do thrilling pop in her sleep. Given her origins and the more subtle versions of ‘Disco Sucks!’ which she’s faced throughout her career, it’s quite apropos that it’s the adventurous, brash and fun electronic pop of Bitch I’m Madonna, Unapologetic Bitch and Holy Water which have been vexing the straight white male critics. Indeed, the fact that Madonna had to point out that the latter song, with lyrics like “Kiss it better, kiss it better (don’t it taste like holy water)”, was meant to be funny speaks volumes about how some perceive her. The heart songs let us know that she’s perfectly self-aware regarding her age and her position – the rebel songs tell us she’s not our bitch, don’t hang our shit on her. She’ll be singing songs like S.E.X. (featuring a ‘lesson in sexology’ which includes “chopsticks, underwear, barber soap, dental chair, fish nets, satin sheets, garter belt, raw meat” – it’s like she felt sorry for the Daily Mail) as long as people keep telling her to stop and tossing off the kind of mercurial melodies found in Hold Tight and Inside Out while her detractors scramble around blowing up photos of her hands. As she puts it in Borrowed Time, she wants to ‘live each moment like our time is only borrowed’.
Taken in one go the ‘Super Deluxe’ version is certainly too long (23 songs, if Queen is indeed missing) but this largely seems to reflect a) the changed nature of ‘albums’ in an mp3/Spotify world and b) the need to get fans to buy multiple copies to shore up Madonna’s commercial fortunes. Presumably because the leaks meant that the songs finished at the time were rush-released, the pacing is a bit off too. Nonetheless this is certainly Madonna’s best album since Confessions On A Dance Floor and, as her public appearances have underlined, she seems more engaged in the music than she has done in a while.
For all the reasons discussed above, Madonna isn’t going to be respected as the preternaturally brilliant talent she is any time soon. The criticism isn’t going to stop being about the same superficial things it’s always about (as opposed to serious discussion of her sometimes problematic and sometimes plain godawful politics.)We’ll do this all again in a few years when she’s 60 and pissing even more people off by showing her ass but, by God, she’s right about one thing:
We’ll miss her when she’s gone.